|The Jazz Repertory Company performing the
Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert
The Jazz Repertory Company returns to Cadogan Hall on Saturday March 12th with one of its most popular shows – Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Goodman finished his Carnegie Hall concert with a twelve minute version of perhaps the most popular tune of the swing era “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
Richard Pite looks at the history of “Sing Sing Sing” and its enduring and irresistible appeal:
You might have seen the new Guinness ad that’s currently running – it’s a one minute celebration of the record producer, talent scout and champion of jazz, John Hammond. It’s the second in a series that Guinness is running called “Made For More.” This new ad, featuring a handsome actor playing the less than handsome Hammond, is a beautifully shot monochrome period piece with newspaper headlines, black and white musicians and black and white dancers, all encapsulating in a very brief moment the great achievements of a remarkable lifetime. Hammond was later responsible for signing Bob Dylan to Columbia Records and gave Bruce Springsteen his first recording contract.
And what is the soundtrack to the ad? Well, once again, it’s that old favourite Sing, Sing, Sing – that wild piece of minor key riffing, wailing trumpets, ululating clarinet and jungle drums that almost eighty years after Goodman recorded it still crops up everywhere.
The piece is a good choice for a tribute to Hammond (who was Benny Goodman’s brother-in-law) as he played the main role in making the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert the first time black and white jazz musicians had ever shared a concert stage together. It was Hammond that introduced the pianist Teddy Wilson to Goodman and he also arranged that the star players of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie Orchestras would appear alongside Goodman’s Orchestra.
Sing Sing Sing certainly does a great job as a movie soundtrack not only because it perfectly captures that brief moment when jazz became the most popular music of its day but because it also appeals to ears raised on rock music – the music doesn’t conjure up rows of middle aged chaps straining the buttons of their tuxedos and peering down at their music stands in bi-focals that say, In The Mood or Jersey Bounce does. Sing Sing Sing is all about sex, sweat and frenzy. If Uncle Monty attempted to dance to it at a wedding the ambulance would probably have to be hailed well before the cowbell brings the band in for the final shout chorus.
Sing Sing Sing was written by Louis Prima, best known today for singing I Wanna Be Like You in Disney’s The Jungle Book. The song was turned into an instrumental feature by Goodman a year later in 1937, taking up both sides of a 78 it was the first extended drum solo on record. Before then drum solos had been short breaks – a drummer would be lucky if he got eight bars to show off his chops, there were just too many other interesting things to cram into the three and a bit minutes that a 78 rpm side allowed you.
Gene Krupa was the right man to carry off this extended drum feature. A wildly extrovert player with movie-star good looks, he had a way of making moves sitting at his kit that were visually as exciting as the sounds he was making. Krupa needled Goodman because he commanded most of the attention on stage – Goodman, of course, played like a dream but he looked like a college professor and besides the speedy movement of his fingers and the occasional glint of a spotlight on his specs there was precious little visually to grab a young bobby-soxer – that’s where Krupa came in (and not long after the ’38 Carnegie Hall gig that’s why Krupa went out).
So here’s a quick tour through YouTube to pick out a few of the many times Sing Sing Sing and numerous sound-a-likes have been in the movies.
Let’s start with Benny’s band in 1938 in Hollywood Hotel taking the tune for a short spin for a couple of minutes.
Here it is in the 1993 movie Swing Kids – a movie about teenagers in Nazi Germany secretly meeting up to dance to it – how the hell those jungle drums didn’t wake up the snoozing fräuleins next door who would have shopped them to the Gestapo, goodness knows. However a salutary reminder that shortly after it was recorded you could have been executed for listening to it.
Woody Allen has the record for using it the most in his films, three times now – Manhattan Murder Mystery, New York Stories and here in Deconstructing Harry – Sing Sing Sing goes to hell.
The insatiable demand for Sing Sing Sing sound-alikes led to me getting two separate movie sessions in two days – the first one was for one of the numerous Harry Potter films and then the next day for a delightful movie called Me and Orson Welles. The more photogenic Zac Efron provided the Krupa licks on camera.
Here’s a trio of spoofs –
1) John Williams in Spielberg’s 1941
2) Cameron Diaz dances to something resembling it in The Mask
3) Michael Buble funks it up on the Spiderman theme
By now those damn drums are probably driving you to distraction so let’s quit whilst there’s still a chance you might want to come and see it live and as it would have sounded in 1938 – March 12th Cadogan Hall SW1 – see you there.
Richard Pite is Director of the Jazz Repertory Company
This is the fourth time the show, featuring Pete Long in the role of Benny Goodman, has been staged at the venue and the last three times have all been sell-outs. Pete Long’s 13 piece band (The Goodmen) includes Enrico Tomasso and Georgina Jackson on trumpets, Gordon Campbell on trombone, Australian tenor saxophonist Duncan Hemstock, with Richard Pite himself in the role of Goodman’s drummer Gene Krupa. Also featured are Anthony Kerr on vibes and the Chicago chanteuse Joan Viskant.
No mention of what separated the Carnegie Hall performance of Sing Sing Sing from all the others – the magical moment when Goodman suddenly calls upon Jess Stacey to solo – and what a solo it is. Measured, reflective but swinging and a contrast to Krupa's frenzied drumming. One of the greatest moments in jazz history.